Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Oldest Human Way: Bioregional Animism

I am like a wolf, running and sniffing along the ground, or a hawk soaring and searching the fields below, looking for a way, a common ground.

My own spirituality is complex, having grown up both in Christianity (Catholicism) and Native American ways. Plus there are just things that make sense to you (or not) that you get from living in this world.

One of these things has a name: Bioregional Animism. Pretty wild name huh? It is a term that is very recent. But it is an ancient thing, as old as humanity itself.

It is what all indigenous people have as part of their spirituality. It was something people did all over the world, here in the Americas, in Europe and Africa, in Australia and Asia, and every place in between. It is what the American Indians lived and what they are remembered for today, and it is embodied in our teachings. In short:

Everything is connected.
Everything is alive.
And every place has its own ways.
And Our People developed their way of life, their sense of the sacred,
based on this sacred connection with the place where they lived.

But that term, "Bioregional Animisim"… what IS that? Here is something I posted on my Sleeping Giant blog a few years back (Feb. 25th, 2009).

Just What IS "Bioregional Animism"?

So, just to make it clear to myself and others what I mean when I use the term, Bioregional Animism, it is worth getting into some etymology.

Bioregion, Bioregional, Bioregionalism

Bio- means "life" (from Greek "bios")

Wikipedia definition of region: "Region is a geographical term that is used in various ways among the different branches of geography. In general, a region is a medium-scale area of land or water, smaller than the whole areas of interest (which could be, for example, the world, a nation, a river basin, mountain range, and so on), and larger than a specific site. A region may be seen as a collection of smaller units (as in "the New England states") or as one part of a larger whole (as in "the New England region of the United States"). Regions can be defined by physical characteristics, human characteristics, and functional characteristics."

As I define it, "bioregion" is an area that is definable by a particular set of biota (living things: plants, animals, etc.). So "bioregional" would be "relating to a bioregion".

-ism= "The suffix -ism denotes a distinctive system of beliefs, myth, doctrine or theory that guides a social movement, institution, class or group. "

So "bioregionalism" would mean "following a system of beliefs, myths, doctrines, or theories, based on an area that is definable by a set of biota (living things: plants, animals, etc.); a definable, distinctive or characteristic set of biota is implied."


Wikipedia defines it so:

"Animism (from Latin anima (soul, life)) is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans and animals but also in plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment..."(Wikipedia:Animism).

Compare it to Animatism:

"Animatism is a term coined by British anthropologist Robert Marett to refer to "a belief in a generalized, impersonal power over which people have some measure of control". Marett argues that certain cultures believe "people, animals, plants, and inanimate objects were endowed with certain powers, which were both impersonal and supernatural..." (Wikipedia:Animatism).


"Convinced that primitive man had not developed the intellectual to form even such simplistic explanations as Tylor proposed, Marett also criticized Tylor’s theories of animism, suggesting that early religion was more emotional and intuitional in origin. He believed that early man recognized some inanimate objects because of their specific characteristics; treated all animate objects as having a life, but never distinguished soul as separate from the body. Considering that early man's universal belief in mana is so self-evident, Marett found insignificant the question of how men and women developed the belief that a spirit or soul resides in all objects" (

Animism implies that a spirit inhabits a rock, sort of how some feel a spirit inhabits a human body...and animatism implies that the rock has a diffuse sort of power shared by all things to one degree or another.

Now, I don't think that indigenous people necessarily made those distinctions...but every indigenous culture is not like another. Perhaps an animistic culture would speak to a particular Rock as a Person (following Hallowell and others), while an animatistic culture would deal more with the Orenda or Mana, and the Rock as a focal point of that Force.

Personally I have had both animistic and animatistic experiences, as well as some others which do not seem to be exactly one or the other. I don't think most people who had those experiences always intellectualized it in that "distancing" way, because the point was to build relationships with the Rock or the Hill or the Bear, not to distance them.

And where does one put the idea of Nature Spirits in Animism and Animatism? For Spirits also sometime reside in a living form not their own: a tree or a stone could house a Nature Spirit, yet the rock or tree have a separate and distinct Personhood different from that of the Alf or Landvaettir.

But back to "Bioregional Animism"...

My own working definition of "Bioregional Animism" is

"A system of animistic beliefs, myths, doctrines, or theories, based on a geographic area that is definable by a set of biota (living things: plants, animals, etc.); a definable, distinctive or characteristic set of biota is implied...and that these biota have souls/spirits with particular powers."

Three things I now see that make what I believe not exactly Bioregional Animism in this sense anyways.

1. I do not restrict souls/spirits (Personhood) only to plants and animals, but also to land forms, stones, rivers, mountains, winds, storms, etc.

2. The concept of a Creator is not inherent in bioregional animism, yet it is not excluded. Most indigenous peoples had both a Creator God, even if distant, and living spirits in the land.

3. There is no discussion of other spirits outside of ensouled biota, not only natural elements, forms and forces, but spirits that never were alive in any sense (angels, devils, etc.) nor at one time in the past were alive: human ghosts (and we Ioways also had animal about plant ghosts? Ghosts of cliffs and stones?). Not to mention thoughtforms that seem like spirits and act like them, but are only shaped-mana-substance. Or entities from other existences (as the Druid code goes, "the love of all existences.") Or Gods and Goddesses and....?

But assuredly, in this blog, my major concern is Bioregional Animism, though, like my Ioway ancestors did, I stretch it to include nonbiota, such as the bluffs, the wind, and the river…here in the land of the Nemaha, along the Missouri River...


  1. Interesting your comment about 'ghosts of rocks' etc... I have found when a hill or natural feature is torn down to make way for construction, sometimes the inner echo of that feature persists for quite some time...
    Wonderful blog, thankyou!

    1. Thanks Josephine :-) Nigel Pennick has used some of the "Northern" (Germanic-Saxon-Norse) terms in his work on geomancy. This is from the geomantic glossary I put together a few years back: "Orlog (Old Norse): the magical history of a place, the geomythic qualities and anecdotes are an integral part of a sacred site. nonmobile property like buildings in a specific setting achieve own personalities/character (Pennick) [see also Jackson's 'The Haunting'] Fate; also Saxon wyrd (Pennick 1989: 262). Also, alag (Pennick 1989: 259).

  2. So true. Spirit is infinite in time and scope. Aho

    1. Thanks xube posoh, it seems to work that way.. of course different people and cultures seem to have different understandings and definitions of 'spirit' too

  3. Ah yes, bioregional animism. It's a good term. I think of my bioregion very much in terms of the watershed: the Miami Valley of Ohio. There is a spring near the headwaters of the Little Miami river that is quite a sacred spot to me and others. ... Thanks for your thoughtful definitions. And I like the three points to as those also fit into my cosmology. So Bioregional Animism +

    1. The watershed is a major shaper and force of one's locality and thus the effect on the bioregion. I will give a source for you to consider information on your own bioregion in an upcoming post. I'm glad you find this useful Justin :-)

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